Written by William Hazel (Originally Published May 2015)
I am not alone.
The footsteps are distinct. The sound of boots across the old wooden floor. One step, two, a third. It is late, past 9pm, and I am the last one in the Old Coast Guard Station museum building cleaning up after a tour program, getting ready to call it a night. The sound comes from above me, the attic space; no doubt about it.
I instinctively freeze. Listen. Listen closer. To be certain that no one has come in the building, I climb into the attic space to take a look. I hear nothing unusual. No more sounds, steps, creaks or crackles that could reveal the origin of what I’m certain I just heard. Through a deep exhale I accept another experience courtesy of this historic place.
For myself, for the staff here, stories of ghosts and goblins is a year round subject. The happenings here do not adhere to any seasonal preconceptions. It does not matter the time of year, the time of day, things just happen. Things that we can’t simply explain away.
Step into this original Life-Saving Station and you walk into a time machine. Built in 1903, the building has been standing on Virginia Beach’s coast for more than a century. Timeworn and proud. Nostalgic and evocative of the period when this little town along this coastline was first being established. Many souls lingered in the Station during the days of tall-ships and all too common maritime tragedy. From the men that worked here, to the bodies of the shipwreck dead stored here; stored in the attic.
They waited in the attic. Often, they were not whole. Bodies didn’t always come ashore neat and clean. These souls had been exposed to the harshest of weather, the terrible cold of the ocean. They had been ripped and mutilated by their ship’s debris or by the force of the waves themselves. Unidentified, nameless, and warding in a bag for a final resting place in a nearby cemetery. But they did have names. Only hours before they were living, breathing, hard working seafaring people that found themselves on a ship in a storm. Surely spending the rest of their life trying to figure out how to get to the beach. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think one of these souls is with me this night.
I have worked in other historic buildings during my museum career, but this one is different. I had a few distinct experiences in a civil-war era building. These took place over the course of almost a decade of employment, however. I have been at The Old Coast Guard Station Museum less than two years and have already had twice as many unexplained encounters.
Very recently, a co-worker was playing some old jazz music on a small radio player when the sound suddenly ratchets to full volume. Maybe that’s just an odd electrical gremlin. When it happens again another day, with vintage jazz playing, it does invite query to coincidence.
Then it happens to me. Same scenario. I play Scott Joplin ragtime and come to a halt as the volume turns itself louder. A different co-worker is in the room as well. Our eyes meet in validation that we are, indeed, experiencing the same phenomenon. In quick response, I ask out loud, raising my voice to boom above the piano.
“Do you like that music? Do you like the ragtime music?”
The player turns itself to full volume.
Climbing the stairs of the Station’s watchtower in the middle of an August afternoon sends me into a column of choking heat trapped within the narrow confines of the architecture. Hot air rises; with each step so increases the amount of sweat pouring off my forehead. I don’t expect to feel cold. No vents up here. No A/C. Just hot. The first sensation of cold air against my arm takes a moment to acknowledge. I don’t think it’s real at first. The next second brings an all-encompassing sensation that the cold is not from inside my body. I am not getting a chill. Not something that is running up my arm. I am feeling something from the outside, something only effecting a small portion of my upper tricep. As I open my awareness to what is happening, it is gone.
I’m not the first to feel something in the watchtower. Things have been seen up there as well. Lights. Figures. A man. There was a time in the museum’s history when so many phone calls were being made to the police in the middle of the night about a man in the tower that the director put a cardboard figure in the window. The cutout is still there. A six foot printing made from a historic photograph of John Woodhouse Sparrow; a life-saving surfman that worked here. A surfman that many say still works here.
My view may be skewed. I’ll admit this. That’s because I’m a believer. I believe in ghosts. Spirits. The life beyond. A near death experience after a devastating car accident many years ago imprinted within me a very deep, heartfelt sense of this place we have come to call the afterlife. I don’t pretend to understand it. I don’t pretend that I have some sort of valid answers about what waits for us beyond this mortal, physical place.
What I do know is that when I unlock the door in the early morning to start my day at The Old Coast Guard Station, I am not alone.